NEW CARLISLE — It's a Monday afternoon just after school gets out, and aside from a small, gray table on the sidelines, the New Prairie football practice fields are completely barren.
The only traffic coming through are cross country runners, slowly migrating from the locker rooms to their practice taking place just past the field, behind the home stands of the football stadium.
Three girls in a golf cart turn to their right from the gravel road onto the field, placing three navy blue bags of footballs underneath the goal post. Practice is about to start, but not before associate head coach Bill Gumm goes over film to prepare his team for its homecoming game against St. Joseph. It's mandatory every player shows up to these meetings right after school gets out.
But one lone player emerges just west of the practice field. He's skinny and just short of 6-feet, wearing a tattered navy practice jersey over his undersized shoulder pads and sweat-stained silver pants. The only clean part of his get-up are a pair of white and gold Adidas soccer cleats.
He sets his unscuffed gold helmet down on the ground just behind the three bags and picks up a ball, punting it from underneath the uprights towards midfield. Five punts follow, all landing around the same area. He picks up a three-pronged, red-white-and-blue stand and a small black block, setting them down on the half-grass, half-dirt covered 10-yard-line.
The player gathers the balls, setting all but one down just to the right of his training accessories. He places one tip of the football on the black block, standing it upright with the white prong of the stand barely touching the top, acting as a makeshift place-holder.
He takes three steps back, two to his left and stares at the white, rugby-style uprights with a gray tower behind and in the center. That's his aiming point. He wants to hit it every time. If he's lucky, he'll make it in the pale yellow trash can sitting underneath.
After a couple steps, he plants his left foot in the ground next to the ball and swiftly kicks it with his right. It goes flying through the uprights and over the tower, which is just fine. He makes about 20 of those, then moves back in incriments of five yards, until he hits the 30-yard-line to attempt a 40-yard field goal — five yards short of a personal best he set at the University of Wisconsin specialists camp this summer.
He sends a ball booming through the center of the uprights, clanking off the top-right side of the tower.
"I don't think I've ever done that from this far out," he says, laughing. "I guess I just like showing off under pressure or something."
It's somewhat remarkable New Prairie senior kicker Nolan Szymanski has never done that before, considering he's done this routine an hour before practice starts every day for the past three years. It's a lonesome, repetitive job, but such is the life of a kicker.
These moments to himself help Szymanski take his mind off whatever is going on in his personal life, giving him a sense of tranquility every day. All he has to think about for a few hours is taking a couple steps, planting his foot, keeping his head down and trying to drill some kicks. That's it, and he loves that about his job.
This kind of lonesome work can make kickers somewhat of an outcast on football teams, but that's far from the case with Szymanski, whose name is chanted by the New Prairie student section before every kick. While his teammates can get on his nerves by calling him "Kicker" or "Cody Parkey," after the Bears' infamous former kicker, Szymanski knows it's all in good fun.
As soon as the rest of his teammates are padded up for practice, they come over to Szymanski and joke around, laughing with one another. A few linemen even come over to the tee Szymanski practices kicking on to try to show how "easy" kicking an extra point is. They, of course, miss most of the time. But when one goes through the uprights, they're letting Szymanski hear it.
And sure, it's easy to look at an extra point, with the ball sitting just 60 feet away from the uprights, and say, "I could do that. How hard can it really be?"
But as Szymanski explains, it's not making one kick that makes the job difficult. It's consistently putting the ball through the uprights with 11 defenders coming at you and the pressure of knowing one miss could make you jobless, all while thousands of people watching are counting on you.
"I like the pressure, though," says Szymanski. "At the end of the day, it's something I've done thousands of times. I just gotta go back there and treat it like its just any other kick, no matter what."
With as potent as New Prairie's offense has been the past few years, led by record-breaking quarterback Chase Ketterer, Szymanski has found himself kicking plenty of times in games.
He's done it so many times that he notched his 100th point as a Cougar following his first extra-point in Friday's win over Andrean. But he didn't know it at the time.
"So, apparently that first one was my 100th, but I had no clue," Szymanski said. "I actually thought going in that the third one was my 100th point. So after I made that one, I went crazy on the sidelines and everything. That's a big milestone for me. But I looked on MaxPreps after the game and I guess that was my 102nd."
With that third point-after, Szymanski sits just 19 points shy of his brother Collin's school-record 121 points for a kicker. Collin says he knows his little brother will probably end up shattering that at some point this year with six games and postseason play still remaining.
"He deserves it," Collin said. "He's way more accurate than I was, and he's worked super hard at kicking ever since he started his sophomore year. I'll be really proud of him when he, but I know I'm gonna hear it from him for sure."
Following in his brother's footsteps was inevitable for Nolan. He was the ball boy for Collin's New Prairie teams, witnessing his brother's hard work to help his team nearly win regionals. Even after his brother left to kick in college, Nolan stuck around as ball boy, traveling down to Indianapolis with the team when it played in the 4A state championship.
Growing up, Nolan always wanted to play football competitively after seeing New Prairie's success first-hand. But his size — or lack thereof — limited what he could do.
"You should've seen this kid when he was a freshman," said Gumm, chuckling. "I love him, but you see a scrawny little four-foot-nothing out there, he doesn't have many other options than to kick."
Nolan isn't one to sugarcoat things, agreeing with Gumm.
"I mean, you see me, I'm not big by any means," he said. "But I was tiny freshman year. I wasn't going to play linebacker or something like that."
Interestingly enough, Nolan nearly blew the first kicing chance he got. His sixth grade coach was looking for someone to kick extra points. A decent amount of kids volunteered to try out for the position, because "everyone wants to be a kicker back then," according to Nolan.
As a soccer player and younger brother of a high school kicker, of course he was going to give it a shot. The odds were more than likely in his favor.
"But I missed that kick so bad," he said.
With a hint of persistence and a dash of annoyance, Nolan convinced his coach to let him kick an extra point in one of the last games of the season. Looking at him, one of the smallest kids on the team, nobody was really expecting much. Except for Nolan — he knew he was good enough.
He boomed the extra point well through the uprights, and his kicking career was officially underway.
Fast-forward to Nolan's sophomore year, and Nolan found himself in a position battle. New Prairie had three kickers at the time, all sophomores. Head coach Russ Radtke has a knack for replacing kickers after a missed field goal, so chances are Nolan would find the field at some point that season, but his first start came as a complete surprise.
The Cougars' starting kicker to open up the season, one of the two soccer players, missed an extra point in the first game against La Porte. Football was too different from soccer for him, and he quit on the spot. This opened up the starting job, but still, Nolan had no clue whether or not he'd be the one to step in.
"Szymanski!" Radtke yelled after Thursday's Week 2 practice that year.
"I was like, 'Oh, man,'" Nolan recalled. "I'm about to get yelled at again or get chewed out or something."
But Radtke had different plans.
"Make sure to get your scouting report together," he said. "You're playing tomorrow."
Nolan ended up missing his first career varsity kick, hooking it wide left against a South Bend Clay special teams unit that wasn't even rushing him. The pressure got to him that day, but he didn't let it didn't define his career.
He's missed 13 extra points in 115 since (88.7 percent accuracy) and now is on the brink of breaking his brother's record. Nolan's put in the work every day to get to this point, and he's enjoyed every bit of it.
"I just love kicking," he says at the end of his session, picking up the kicking block and stand. "It's the hardest, easiest thing to do and you get points out of it. It's the best."